Arcades in 1987 were in the midst of a revolution that moved video games away from the single screen units in an upright cabinet to something altogether more spectacular. Racing games such as Power Drift came in huge cabinets you sat in with a real steering wheel and After Burner rode on the tails of the recently released Top Gun movie, throwing players around in a hydraulic unit.
With shoot ’em ups in danger of being left behind, Taito needed something to make their new shooter Darius stand out. Spreading the game across three CRT displays and using mirrors to create one huge cinematic screen, it wasn’t quite the first game to use this system, but Taito added new ideas including speakers under the seat, the “body sonic” system, to immerse the players even further. You could even plug in your own headphones to get the audio fed straight in to your ears.
While Gradius featured technologically advanced space craft, R-Type made you battle bio-organic nightmares inspired by the film Alien, Darius had you shooting fish. The cannon fodder enemies are the usual mix of gun turrets and spaceships, but boss battles are all themed around fish. Maybe game creator Akira Fujita hated sushi?
Darius became a huge hit and was the most successful arcade game of the year, spawning multiple sequels and spin offs and being ported to the consoles of the time, including the SNES, Mega Drive and PC Engine. Developer M2 has now assembled an array of ports in two collections, one focused on the arcade versions and a second which collects the console port. both are available on Switch and PlayStation 4.
The Arcade Collection includes Darius (Old Version), the original three screen cabinet version, Darius (New Version), which is identical apart from re-balanced the boss fights, and Darius (Extra Version), which changed some enemy patterns and made the first half of the game easier. You can play in Normal Mode, identical to the arcade cabinet, or training mode in which you can alter the power ups to give you maximum firepower from the the start and choose the zone to play, of which there are 26.
To get three CRT screens on one modern widescreen TV, the gameplay area is a narrow band that uses barely a third of the screen. The rest is filled images from the arcade cabinets, all of which are in Japanese so add to the accuracy of the port but feel a bit pointless. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect the original arcade game had; sitting ten feet away from a modern 58″ TV, the sprites are tiny and the grandeur is lost. It also highlights the rather rather interesting collision detection. Your missiles only have to be in the general vicinity of an enemy to make them explode as you are covering such a wide area.
As you might expect from a coin-op from the 80’s it is incredibly hard. You do get shields which absorb some attacks, but if you die, all your power ups are lost. If you want to see every level in the branching story then you are going to have to be incredibly, incredibly good at shoot ’em ups or make judicious use of the save feature which lets you restart from any point in the game.
Darius II, the Japanese twin-screen sequel is also included, bringing with it the ability to change the direction of your ship during boss battles. Its worldwide versions, known as Sagaia, are also included, both tweaking stages and gameplay to make them a little easier. The last game is Darius Gaiden, originally released in 1994 and the first game in the series that was made for single screen coin-ops.
The evolution of the series over time is clear, Darius Gaiden is light years away from the barely animated sprites of the original game with large, colourful graphics and a rocking soundtrack that includes vocals. There are pseudo-3D effects as enemies whizzing in and out of the screen, plus the inclusion of now standard weapons such as smart bombs, the Gaiden version of which creates a massive black hole that sucks in all the enemies and bullets. The game is also more forgiving that earlier entries and feels easier now that it’s only played across one screen, although the boss battles are still tough as old boots. If your friends think they’re good beating a boss in Sekiro then just give them Darius Gaiden and see how far they get.
Overall the Arcade collection is a mixed bag. The original couple of Darius games have not aged that well, partly due to the need to push them in to narrow bands on the screen, but Gaiden remains immensely playable and a lot of fun, especially in two player mode.
The Console Collection, which is a separate purchase, collates the ports and regional releases of the games to the consoles of the time. This includes Darius II on Sega Mega Drive, Sagaia and Darius Twin for the Sega Genesis and Master System, Darius Force, the first original Darius console title that was created for the Super Famicon and the NES port of the same game, another Famicom original which is also presented as Super Nova on NES, and Darius Plus on PC Engine. The jewel in the crown, at least for Darius fans, is Darius Alpha, a boss rush version of Darius Plus of which only 800 copies were ever made.
While retaining the Darius name, these games differ from the arcade games considerably as they were all designed for single screen play. Some have not aged too badly, Darius II on Megadrive is still a good shooter, but others like the Master System version of Sagaia is a mess of flickering graphics and jerking backgrounds. The limitations of the earlier consoles are also easy to spot, as they could only handle a certain number of sprites on the screen at once, and thus limited the number of bullets you could fire. However, once a bullet hits something you get to fire another, letting you cheese some sections by getting close to enemies and firing four times as many bullets in to them compared to if you were at range!
Darius Twin on Famicom benefits from being designed exclusively for the console rather than trying to mimic arcade hardware, and the SNES port also holds up well retaining the bright colourful graphics, albeit in a slightly chunkier form. Darius Force and Supernova, which are also console exclusives, add in features from other shooters such as the ability to choose a ship type when you start. R-Type is clearly a big influence with the first boss, “Bio Hazard”, clearly a rip off of the first boss from R-Type. These games were also the first to steer away from the fishy side of things with enemies based on dinosaurs and other creatures.
Overall the conversions seems to be fairly accurate – I am relying on my memories from over thirty years ago – but each collection has a couple of stone cold classics and some older, rather ropier games. It’s not the games that are the issues, it’s how they have been made available. Splitting them into two collections seems odd, especially when they both clock in at less than 200MB. Then we have the price.
The Console collections is £47.99, whereas the Arcade Collection is £34.99 – £83 in total which is £17 shy of the recently released PC Engine Mini console that has over fifty games, many of which are perfect conversions of shoot ’em classics.